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Red Theory: Against Sakai on settler colonialism and the national question in the U.S.

By J. Sykes

From a 1932 Communist Party election poster

As we have seen in our previous article, capitalism’s origins are largely based upon “primitive accumulation” – the theft of land and resources during the colonial period. This theft helped to jumpstart the original accumulation of capital. In the U.S. this began with settler colonialism, whereby colonizers from Europe settled in the Americas, bringing with them terrible violence and oppression of indigenous and other oppressed peoples.

The FRSO Program, in particular the section on “Immediate Demands for U.S. Colonies, Indigenous Peoples, and Oppressed Nationalities,” describes this well. The colonists who founded the U.S. did so through genocide and slavery. They waged war against the indigenous population, systematically murdering and forcing them onto reservations. They brought enslaved people from Africa who they forced to toil on the plantations of the South. The American Revolution in 1776 ended British colonial rule, but the American colonists kept their newly founded bourgeois democracy for themselves. Only white male landowners had political power or the right to vote.

The Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848 brought about the annexation of northern Mexico by the United States. This led to the formation of an oppressed Chicano nation in the Southwest. A second revolution, which began in 1861 with the U.S. Civil War, would be necessary to end chattel slavery and defeat the Southern planter class. This experience, along with the counter-revolution against Reconstruction in 1877, led to the formation of an African American oppressed nation in the Black Belt agricultural region of the southern U.S. In 1893 the U.S. overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii, forging it into an oppressed nation made up of the Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Puerto Ricans and Portuguese working masses of the islands.

All of this turns around the national question. The Marxist-Leninist theory of the national question was developed by Lenin in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination and Stalin in Marxism and the National Question. Essentially, they argue that nations oppressed by imperialism, which are formed on the basis of common territory, history, economy, language and culture, have the right to self-determination, including the right even to secession. Proletarian internationalism demands that communists respect and uphold this right.

If national self-determination is to truly mean anything, it must be understood in terms of the right to separate. Lenin is crystal clear on this point, when he says, “The right of nations to self-determination means only the right to independence in a political sense, the right to free, political secession from the oppressing nation.” This means that U.S. oppressed nationalities have the right to full equality everywhere, and national self-determination within their homeland, be it the Black Belt, Aztlán, or Hawaii.

A lot of good, theoretical work has been done on this. Some of the most valuable writings are Harry Haywood’s 1948 book Negro Liberation, his pamphlet from 1958, For A Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question, and his 1978 autobiography Black Bolshevik. Most recently there is Frank Chapman’s outstanding book published in 2021, Marxist-Leninist Perspectives on Black Liberation and Socialism.

But not everything written on this has been so helpful. Another text that has gained some traction among the left is J. Sakai’s 1983 book, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. The book is correct to point out that the U.S. is founded on colonialism, slavery and genocide, but after that it gets a lot wrong. Unfortunately, Sakai’s book is anti-worker and ultra-leftist, and its errors come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the national question in the U.S. Essentially, the view advocated by Sakai rejects the possibility of forming a strategic alliance of the multinational working class and the oppressed nationality movements. It does so with a lot of ultra-left rhetoric, which may seem revolutionary, but actually its central thesis is harmful towards building a real revolutionary movement. It is a view that opposes the multinational working class unity that must be built if we are to organize a revolution in this country. Revolution is a serious matter. We need correct theory, not just the most revolutionary-sounding rhetoric.

Marxist-Leninists have long rejected the view that the working class in the imperialist countries is sold out and has no revolutionary potential. This is Sakai’s starting point, arguing that white workers are completely bought off by imperialism. Indeed, Lenin himself said in 1918 in his Letter to American Workers, “The American workers … will be with us, for civil war against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the world and of the American labor movement strengthens my conviction that this is so.”

But according to Sakai, “Amerika is so decadent that it has no proletariat of its own, but must exist parasitically on the colonial proletariat of oppressed nations and national minorities.” This view, that the relationship of white workers to oppressed nationalities is fundamentally parasitic, runs counter to facts and makes enemies of friends, disrupting the most important revolutionary weapon the masses of the people currently have: the united front against monopoly capitalism and the strategic alliance. Bourgeois ideology has always sought to divide the multinational working class along racial lines, and Sakai’s work supports that effort.

Sakai’s analysis misses an essential point that the great African American communist Harry Haywood made way back in 1948 in his book Negro Liberation: white supremacy is bad for the multinational working class as a whole, even for white workers. According to Haywood, “It is not accidental … that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the position of the whites is also most degraded. Facts … expose the staggering price of ‘white supremacy’ in terms of health, living and cultural standards of the great masses of southern whites. They show ‘white supremacy’ … to be synonymous with the most outrageous poverty and misery of the southern white people. They show that ‘keeping the Negro down’ spells for the entire South the nation’s lowest wage and living standards.”

In other words, Haywood explains that white workers do not materially benefit from white supremacy, but are, in fact, tremendously harmed by it and have a material interest in opposing it. Haywood goes even further into this question in his 1981 comment on the book A House Divided: Labor and White Supremacy, where he says that the weakness of the U.S. labor movement shouldn’t be blamed on racist views among white workers, and that “to attribute the main and entire problem of labor’s slowness to revolt against capitalism to white chauvinism is an over-simplification and distorts the actual development that has taken place.” Clearly Harry Haywood is correct that things are far more complex than Sakai would have us believe.

Sakai fails to understand how contradictions have changed, and with this, the terrain of struggle over the course of U.S. history. The early period of settler colonialism that was at the root of capitalism’s genesis from Columbus through the beginning of the American Revolution gave way to a period of competitive capitalism in the new United States. While the genocide and land theft of native peoples continued, new contradictions emerged. The beginnings of the U.S. labor movement reflected the growing contradiction between labor and capital. Slave revolt intensified, with the most well known led by Nat Turner (1831) and John Brown (1859). As the conflict over slavery deepened, it eventually led to the U.S. Civil War.

The industrial buildup in the North during the Civil War intensified the concentration and centralization of capital, leading to the emergence of monopoly capitalism and modern U.S. imperialism. Imperialism twisted the U.S. into its own “prison house of nations,” locking the oppressed nations into underdevelopment. Revolutionary strategy must confront that reality. As Haywood pointed out, monopoly capitalism crushes the entire multinational working class – white and non-white workers alike, together with the broad masses of the people – under its boot. Only a revolutionary united front, led by the multinational working class and based on the strategic alliance of the workers movement and the oppressed nationalities can possibly defeat this terrible hydra.

We have said before that the working class has no material interest in the oppression of others and that it is on this basis that the working class is destined to end all oppression. This historic mission of the proletariat is an absolutely essential thesis of Marxism-Leninism. This reality forms the basis of the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the oppressed nationalities, and it is for this reason that Haywood emphasized ideological struggle against errors that obscure that reality – against both white chauvinism and narrow nationalism.

The 1930 Resolution of the Comintern that Haywood helped to write clarifies how communists should put all of this into practice. “They, the white workers, must boldly jump at the throat of the 100 percent bandits who strike a Negro in the face. This struggle will be the test of the real international solidarity of the American white workers.” This means fighting against racism and national oppression every day and in all of its forms, from opposing workplace discrimination to standing up to police violence and against mass incarceration. It goes on to say that “It is the special duty of the revolutionary Negro workers to carry on tireless activity among the Negro working masses to free them of their distrust of the white proletariat and draw them into the common front of the revolutionary class struggle against the bourgeoisie.”

The Chicago Black Panther Party chairman, Fred Hampton, summed this up clearly, saying “we fight racism with solidarity.”

This same logic of opposing white chauvinism and narrow nationalism applies not just to the Black national question, but to the Chicano and Hawaiian national questions as well. It remains the road forward today in building the revolutionary strategic alliance. This anti-imperialist, multinational united front, based on a correct analysis of the national question, is the only way communists can successfully combat the legacy left behind by settler colonialism in the U.S. That means combatting that legacy not just with revolutionary-sounding rhetoric, but with a strategy to defeat it.

The national question in the United States is extremely complex, in both theory and practice. There are many opportunities for misunderstanding and error. But the national question is far too important to allow these errors to go unanswered. When the multinational working class seizes power in this country, the national question will be one of the most important problems to solve. National self-determination must mean precisely that: the right of oppressed nations to determine their own national destiny, including the right to separate. Multinational working-class unity can only be built on the basis of that understanding. This is absolutely essential if we are to make a revolution in this country that liberates all people from exploitation and oppression.

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